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Art market chills in spring

By Zhang Yuchen (China Daily)

09:55, March 29, 2013

A woman examines a piece at Boundless: Contemporary Art in Hong Kong, Sotheby's first auction of Asian and Western contemporary art in Asia, in December. (Xinhua)

Lack of confidence leaves buyers and investors out of the frame, reports Zhang Yuchen in Beijing.

Spring has yet to warm the hearts of China's auctioneers. Instead, a chill wind is blowing through the art market. In contrast to recent years, the spring auction season, which began in early February, has been a cause for concern rather than celebration.

Perhaps the auctioneers aren't generating enough excitement as they stand on the podium, gavel in hand, calling out bids, but something special is needed to encourage buyers to up the ante and part with their cash.

This year has seen a huge downturn in both the prices paid for individual lots and the art market in general. The trading volume during the 2012 autumn season, which runs from October through December, fell to 29.4 billion yuan ($4.7 million) from 40 billion yuan in the same period the year before.

The decline in prices and trading volume is symbolized by a true event, recounted by Kou Qin, vice-president of China Guardian Auctions. The story has a humorous ring to it, but it has had a chilling effect on buyers and sellers.

A client of China Guardians, who had bid 10 million yuan for a valuable bronze pot, arrived at Kou's office the day after the deal had been made. The client, from Shanxi province, bid for the objet d' art along with several other items, backed by a large amount of money loaned by a couple of friends. Sadly, he had overbid massively and had nowhere near enough capital to settle the bill for the 10 million yuan antique. He had hoped to sell the other items quickly and at a markup, to furnish himself with the funds for the pot, while making a tidy profit.

However, when he arrived at Kou's office, he was forced to admit that he couldn't afford the item and wanted to return it. Having lost most of his initial capital, the man had fallen out with his friends, who had, in turn, extracted a brutal revenge. He lifted his shirt a little to show Kou the marks and wounds left by the severe beating he had endured from his- now furious friends.

"It sounds quite funny, but it's actually not," said Kou. "It's more like a metaphor for what we've all been through during the last couple of auction seasons."

When the market seemed prosperous, a large amount of money flooded into the pool, but was withdrawn at the first ominous sign, said Guan Yu, director of Art Market Monitor of Artron.

In 2011, 26 individual lots attracted bids of 100 million yuan each, which many observers saw as a giant leap that would transform the local art market into one of the world's largest capital arenas. However, their hopes were dashed when only five items hit the 100 million yuan threshold in the whole of 2012.

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